Thursday, March 07, 2019

"Aye, and Gomorrah" (1967)

Samuel R. Delany is a unique figure not just in science fiction but more generally in American literature. Born and raised in Harlem, he is among the first to explore the Q in LGBTQ, before there was ever a Q, before there was even LGBT. Harlan Ellison's anthology finds Delany relatively early in his career, in his mid-20s. He had already published several novels but this is his first published short story. In many ways, Ellison back-loaded the end of this collection with ringers to finish strong: younger writers already with some reputation, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Norman Spinrad, Roger Zelazny, and, for the very last, Delany. Like many of the stories in this collection, this can feel more like straining for effect than dangerous. And if its ideas don't seem that surprising now, it's still surprising to find them in a science fiction story, a genre that to this point hewed close to red-blooded heterosex when it involved sex at all. In this future time, it has turned out that space travel involves passing through a band of radiation that leaves astronauts sterilized. The result ultimately is that desexualizing medical procedures before puberty are the optimal approach if a person wants that career. "Spacers"—recognizable by the uniforms they wear on visits to Earth—are nonsexual and ambiguously gendered. In turn, in line with Internet Rule 34, spacers become sexually fetishized objects for a segment of Earth's population. These people are known as "frelks," a neologism from their psychological condition, known as "free-fall-sexual-displacement complex." It seems like a stretch in terms of projecting slang and jargon, but projecting slang and jargon is never easy anyway. I like the view that humans are so consumed with their own sexualities that this is the kind of thing we'd be likely to see in the circumstances. Spacers earn extra money by prostituting themselves to frelks, though doing so stigmatizes them among other spacers. What I think Delany pulls off really well here may be a small matter. But a scene involving a female frelk who is obviously uncontrollably turned on in the presence of a spacer is remarkable. You feel the shame of them both behind the dialogue, and the woman is close to lapsing into incoherent moments of something like talking dirty. "Go back to the moon, loose meat," she says, closing her eyes, in a fever of desire because the spacer's price is too high, or he's just playing with her. Ellison talks about including Delany like it was a coup, the story won a Nebula award, and it finishes the anthology on a high note to a wildly uneven ride.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

1 comment:

  1. I liked Dhalgren when I read it years ago. As I recall it had lots of vivid dystopic set pieces, ambient coming of age/coming out disorientation, but did not have a lot going on in the way of a story.